Ascutney Rope Tow/Photo by Nancy Nutile-McMenemy
In January 1934, the first rope tow in the country began pulling skiers up a hill on Clinton Gilbert’s Farm in Woodstock. Powered by a Model-T truck engine, the tow took five days to build and cost $500. Skiers paid one dollar to ride the tow and ski on Gilbert’s Hill, where the age of alpine skiing was born.
It’s been over 85 years since the first rope tow came to life and revolutionized downhill skiing. Even though ski areas have modernized trail access with four-passenger bubble chairs and high-speed gondolas, Vermont rope tows continue to stand the test of time.
“There’s a certain mystique to rope tows,” says Glenn Seward, a board member of Ascutney Outdoors, a nonprofit that helped reopen the Brownsville ski area after it had closed in 2010. “It was the original method of getting up the hill to ski. And in this day of 100-dollar lift tickets, it’s still a great way to provide an affordable day of skiing.”
Ascutney’s original rope tow was installed in the 1940s. As a nod to the mountain’s history and a commitment to keep skiing affordable, Ascutney Outdoors installed a new rope tow at the ski area in 2016. The rope tow extends 788 feet and serves three beginner trails.
“The impetus for installing the rope tow was to get downhill skiing back to Ascutney,” says Seward, who started skiing at Ascutney in the 1960s and worked at the mountain until the 1980s. “In an effort to offer affordable skiing, the rope tow was the only alternative. From the day the rope tow started running in 2016, riding it remains free. Anyone can use the rope tow to ski, and it will stay that way.”
Vermont Rope Tows are Here to Stay
About 20 miles north of Ascutney is the legendary Gilbert’s Hill in Woodstock. Howard Krum and Mary Margaret Sloan purchased the historic, 112-acre property in 2017. Gilbert’s Hill remains highly accessible to the public through conservation and historic preservation easements. The rope tow is gone, but the hill is open for skiing, hiking, and snowshoeing from dawn to dusk every day. There’s also four-car parking area at the end of the couple’s driveway on Route 12 for visitors.
Krum and Sloan plan to re-install a new rope tow on the property during the 2021-22 winter season. Poles and pulleys currently mark the original tow footprint, but Krum says they’ll likely opt for a different route for greater access to the hill.
So, what is it about our fascination with rope tows?
“Vermonters are do-it-yourselfers. They like situations where they can make things happen themselves,” Krum says. “It’s a practical, self-reliant sort of thing.”
Back in December 1936, a rope tow was installed at Northeast Slopes in East Corinth, now home to the oldest continuously operating rope tow in the United States. Parts of the original rope tow are still in operation—including the wheels, which are from a Model-A Ford, as well as wooden wheel spokes from 100-year-old Cadillac.
The ski area has a second, smaller rope tow for beginners that was installed in the 1940s and is powered by a 1973 Dodge Dart with a Slant-Six engine. The original rope tow installed in 1936 extends 1,250-feet and is powered by a 1960 Ford farm truck. It’s also considered the world’s fastest rope tow, running at about 15 miles per hour normally but recorded a speed of 27 miles per hour on a world record speed attempt.
But when you go to Northeast Slopes, time slows down in the best possible way. Especially when you’re on the rope tow.
“Nostalgia is an experience people are looking for,” says Wade Pierson, who sits on the ski area’s board of directors and started skiing at Northeast Slopes as a young child in the 1960s. “People want to know what it was like to ski back in the 1930s or 40s. And that’s what we have up here.”